Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Connecticut labeling proposal

A proposal would require labels for genetically modified food
By Gregory B. Hladky
New Haven Advocate
March 30, 2011

The revolving door between agri-conglomerates like Monsanto and the federal government has been spinning for decades.

Letting Connecticut consumers know if the food they’re buying has been genetically modified seems like an innocent enough idea. After all, U.S. government experts say it’s safe, the agri-industrial giants say it’s safe, and so do the food manufacturing conglomerates.

So why do you suppose everyone is expecting an all-out legislative Blitzkrieg to be waged against a little proposal in Connecticut’s General Assembly to require labeling of genetically modified foods?

“Anytime you step on somebody’s toes, you’re going to stir up a hornet’s nest,” explains state Rep. Richard Roy, the Milford Democrat who attached the labeling proposal to a bill that came out of the legislature’s Environment Committee last week.

The toes in this case belong to some of the biggest, baddest agricultural and food industry players in the world. And the reason they don’t want products labeled as “genetically modified” is they know more and more consumers are worried about their food and how it’s produced.

“Consumers increasingly want to know what’s in their food,” says Colin O’Neil, a policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. “And the companies want to give out less information, not more.”

O’Neil says bills similar to Connecticut’s genetically modified (or GM) food labeling measure have been repeatedly introduced in other state legislatures and in Congress, and have been blown away by the combined lobbying power of the food, agricultural and biotechnology industries.

According to O’Neil, agricultural and biotech companies have spent more than $500 million since 1999 on lobbying, and much of the effort was designed to promote GM products and to prevent consumers from being informed about what is being done to create that food.

Estimates of how many of the products purchased every day in American supermarkets that involve some sort of genetic modification range from 40 to 70 percent.

Karen Batra, a spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, says 93 percent of all soybeans grown in the U.S. and 86 percent of all corn raised here come from biotech-engineered seeds.

That means that nearly all of the high-fructose corn syrup in sodas and cereals and hundreds of other products comes from genetically modified corn. Most feed eaten by beef cattle, dairy herds, pigs and chickens in this country comes from crops that have been genetically changed to resist weeds and pests and the chemicals sprayed on crops.

Japan and the European Union prohibit the growing and sale of GM crops and their use as feed for animals intended for human consumption. (The one exception in Europe seems to be potatoes that are used in industrial processes. Who knew we even needed industrial potatoes?)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates GM crops and animals, have repeatedly declared there is no real difference between GM foods and conventional foods. (That $500 million in lobbying cash probably had nothing to do with massaging those federal regulators’ opinions.)

Batra says her organization “supports the current U.S. labeling system” approved by the federal government, so there’s no need to bother telling people their food isn’t the same as it used to be.

“Biotech ingredients don’t need to be labeled because it’s been determined by the government and scientific organizations that there’s no compositional difference between biotech foods and their conventional counterparts,” Batra says.

In fact, she adds, putting a GM label on food would be “misleading consumers into believing there is a difference,” and that would be bad.

That argument, according to Bill Duesing, is the equivalent of genetically modified bullshit. “We’re in the middle of this great unmonitored experiment,” says Duesing, the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “You don’t know what you’re eating, what’s genetically modified and what isn’t.”

Duesing says the revolving door between agri-conglomerates like Monsanto, which produces most of the GM seed used in the U.S., and the federal government has been spinning for decades, with Monsanto execs becoming regulators and regulators going to work for Monsanto.

(A spokesman for Monsanto declined to comment for this story.)

“It’s a really powerful industry,” Duesing says of the combination of agricultural, food and chemical corporations involved in GM crops and food.

O’Neil says the labeling regulations were the result of “backroom discussions” between federal officials and representatives of the agricultural and food industries back in the mid- to late-1990s. “Consumers feel they were left out of those discussions and that decisions were made behind their backs,” he says.

The Food and Drug Administration is now considering allowing genetically engineered salmon (which opponents have tagged as “Frankenfish”) to be marketed without any distinction from other farmed salmon. Two U.S. House members from Washington and Alaska have introduced legislation in Congress to either ban the Frankenfish outright or require it to be labeled as “transgenic” if sold for human consumption.

AquaBounty Technologies, the Waltham, Mass., company that has created the genetically altered salmon, says their fish would grow larger and faster than other salmon and thus help save wild salmon stocks.

All this is happening at a time when the fastest growing sector of the food industry involves organically grown crops and meat. Despite this trend, Batra argues her industry isn’t worried about people shying away from GM products.

“I don’t think it would necessarily discourage people,” Batra says of labeling GM products. She says most organic food is bought by “an elite social class that has the money to pay a premium” for their food.

Batra points out that GM or biotech food is a lot cheaper to grow than organic crops and animals, which means a better deal for consumers. And genetically engineered products can actually be “made safer and more nutritious” than organic or conventionally grown food, she argues.

Roy, who is co-chair of the environment committee, has a feeling this labeling bill will run into a stone wall of opposition. Another similar measure was shunted into legislative oblivion earlier this year, which led Roy to try the end run of attaching it as an amendment to another bill.

State Rep. Len Greene, a rookie Republican from Seymour, was one of five committee members who voted against the GM labeling measure. “It’s going to be a large cost associated with this for business,” he says. “I didn’t think this was a necessary or wise policy decision in this economy.”

Even if this proposal goes down to defeat (as Roy and activists like Duesing and O’Neil fully expect) its advocates insist this will at least open a much needed debate about what’s in our food.

“I think this is probably the start of a long battle,” says Roy, who adds that he isn’t at all discouraged by the prospect.

“This isn’t the United States of Monsanto yet,” says Roy.

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